Whether it’s resolutions or just generally reflecting, I think December is a perfect time to take stock of what’s going on in your life.
But it can be overwhelming to start. So today, I’m going to excerpt some advice for doing what I call a personal annual review from a piece I wrote a few years ago for Refinery29.com. (You can read the full piece here.) Ready? Let’s plan.
Step 1: This step requires some time investment — but it’s the most important part of the process. Block off an evening during the week or a weekend afternoon, grab your favorite writing tools, and think on this: What were your top 5–10 highs of 2018? And what were your 5–10 low moments? It could be everything from an excellent vacation, to a bad project at work, to a breakup, to a really moving book you read. No limits. Free write for at least 20 minutes on this — it doesn’t matter much if you write a list of words, free-flowing paragraphs, or just a few sentences. The point here is to do some exploration about the things that are making you happy and fulfilled, and the things you feel might be lacking in your life or blocking you. Can’t remember what happened in the last year? To jog your memory, review your calendars and social media accounts, and jot down memories that big events bring up.
Step 2: Connect the dots between these items. This is what I mean about connecting the dots: Look back at the things that made you feel happy and accomplished, and the things that kind of made you feel like dog poo, and try to draw common themes between all of them. For example, once when I did this exercise a few years ago, I realized the things that mattered in external ways — my weight and appearance, my career, and my decorated condo — were going well. But the things that nourished me internally — friendships, purposeful hobbies that weren’t a time suck, and meaningful dates and relationships — were getting a short shrift from me. And this is where the aha moment will ideally happen for you, too. Instead of tossing out a list of things that you feel like you should do — the classic way of deciding on New Year’s resolutions — rumination and exploration of things that make you feel good and bad will help you work backwards to figure out what’s missing from your life and what you actually want.
Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times had the best example of this in action that I’ve recently seen. She wanted to lose weight, but regular attempts never worked for her. However, when she focused her attention on the reasons she wanted to lose weight, she came to a different conclusion. What she really wanted was to feel more confident, energetic, and to participate in social activities she had been avoiding due to embarrassment about her weight gain. So she restrategized. Instead of dieting, she bought new clothes that flattered her, worked on her sleep habits, and went out more with friends.
Step 3: Make your list, goals, themes for the year from these realizations. After I connected the dots during this exercise a couple of years ago, I realized that I need to eliminate activities that weren’t making me feel anything (social media); make time for the hobbies that didn’t feel aimless and I knew made me happy (writing, cooking, reading); be more intentional about investing in friendships and making plans myself; and cut back on endless online dating. Voilà — I had a list of goals and activities I knew, from intentional reflection and thought, that would be satisfying.
Step 4: Make a plan to actually do these things. Identifying things you’d like to do to improve your life is actually a huge accomplishment. But even with that, you’re still faced with another difficult part: actually doing them. What’s worked for me is breaking my goals into categories that align with this excellent goal-setting spreadsheet/template available here at this link. The creator of that spreadsheet, Olivia, has lots of fantastic ideas on goal setting for the year ahead and how to break down your goals into doable chunks and track them.
Step 5: This step is optional, but I love to do it: Try to pick a word or phrase that seems to encapsulate the things you are aiming to do, be and feel in the coming year. It can be as simple as “Be intentional,” which was my theme one year. I’m musing on something along the lines of “Action” or “Risk taking” for 2019. It could also be a quote or a line of poetry that just feels right to you.
So there you have it. A process to finding goals that really speak to what you need and want from your life. You can forget about those unachievable resolutions to “lose weight,” “save money,” or whatever goal you felt obligated to commit yourself to a few hours before the ball drops. If there’s something you dream of doing in your life, take the time to sit down, write it out, and make an action plan. It’s never too late to start something new, whatever time of year.